"Saving and Celebrating" the Treasures of Women's History

Posted on: March 1st, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

Written by Dwight Young

In recognition of its significance, then First Lady Laura Bush chose Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House as the site for her 2002 debut appearance as Save America’s Treasures’ honorary chair.

Have you joined our campaign to save the Save America’s Treasures program? I hope so – because it’s worth saving, believe me.

Created more than a decade ago, SAT has been cut out of the proposed federal budget for next year. That’s bad news – really bad news – because this program, in addition to boosting the economy in communities all over the country and creating thousands of jobs, has helped preserve more than 1,100 important places, documents, collections and works of art. Quirky and wonderful, inspiring and surprising, beautiful and not so much, these things link us with the people, events and ideas that shaped American history and culture. In a very real sense, they’re us – and if that’s not worth preserving, what is?

Now that Women’s History Month is upon us, it’s worth noting that SAT has played a key role in saving and celebrating a great many treasures associated with women. Some of them involve bona fide icons: the Alabama birthplace of Helen Keller got an SAT grant, for instance, as did the Massachusetts house where Louisa May Alcott and her family lived; the long-forgotten Washington, DC, office once occupied by Clara Barton; the archives of legendary dancer Martha Graham; a collection of clothing that belonged to Dolley Madison; and the homes of reclusive poet Emily Dickinson and the decidedly un-reclusive (and famously unsinkable) Molly Brown.

Other SAT-funded projects evoke names that are, well, less familiar. Josephine Wright Chapman, for instance, is not exactly a household name – but she was one of America’s earliest female architects, and an SAT grant went to a building she designed in Worcester, Mass., that is now a popular venue for civic events and performances. Grants were also awarded to the Madame C. J. Walker Urban Life Center in Indianapolis, a living memorial to the life and achievements of the entrepreneur and philanthropist who became the nation’s first black female millionaire; the Washington home of Mary Church Terrell, the first African-American woman to sit on an American school board and the founding president of the National Association of Colored Women; and a Delaware estate called Gibraltar, which boasts a garden designed by pioneering female landscape architect Marian Coffin.

I can’t claim to have seen all of these treasures – but I have visited Val-Kill a couple of times, and it always blows me away. Eleanor Roosevelt is one of my personal heroes, you see, and Val-Kill is the place that evokes her personality most clearly. It’s a grandmotherly sort of place with mismatched chairs in the dining room, a narrow wooden bed on the sleeping porch, and framed photographs everywhere – a place that was obviously lived in by someone who cared more about life than about decor. Val-Kill offered Mrs. Roosevelt, for the first time in her life, a place that was truly her own, and she made it a retreat where she could enjoy the company of close friends – and offer simple meals and stimulating conversation to the world leaders who came to call in a steady stream. It’s a wonderfully engaging place, and Save America’s Treasures has provided major funding over the years to help keep it intact and alive.

You want treasures? I got your treasures right here. We’ve all got them, in fact. They’re in every part of the country from Hawaii to Maine, ready to welcome and inform and inspire us – thanks in large part to this program that’s WAY too good to lose.

Save America's Treasures, Preserve America, and the other programs cut or underfunded by the proposed federal budget do more than preserve our country's rich heritage – they put Americans to work. Learn more about the National Trust's campaign to restore this critical funding.

Dwight Young joined the staff of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1977. He currently serves as senior communications associate and writes the regular 'Back Page' feature in Preservation magazine.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.